During the first month of the offseason, the Minnesota Twins sat back and watched as pitchers like Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, and Robbie Ray, among others, left the free agent board, despite the team’s great need for rotation arms.
The only legitimate major league-talented pitcher the club added thus far is Dylan Bundy, who posted a 6.06 ERA last season. It’s clear the club will have to rely on some less distinguished pitchers next season, to try and improve on the 5.18 rotation ERA from last season, a must if the team expects to compete in 2022.
The Minnesota Twins have a bunch of younger arms, such as Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran, on the 40-man roster. But it’s hard to rely on guys with no major league experience. There is one player that comes to mind who had some success what feels like so long ago and has kind of been swept under the rug going into next season after a very rough 2021 campaign: 26-year-old Randy Dobnak.
In his first couple of seasons, Dobnak combined for a 3.12 ERA and 3.56 FIP over 15 starts and 75 innings. Everything fell apart last year. He started six games, came out of the bullpen eight times, and missed two-and-a-half months with a finger strain. At the season’s end, Dobnak had a 7.64 ERA with a poor 6.6 K-BB% (11.8 K%, 5.3 BB%), 5.70 FIP, and horrendous 7.04 xERA.
His poor production actually started in 2020. From August 29 of that year onward, he owned an 8.27 ERA. For more than half of his career, the contact pitcher has been below replacement level. Regardless, the Minnesota Twins might have to slot Dobnak into the rotation out of necessity and the fact that he’s under contract until at least 2025.
Twins fans are probably sick to their stomach just thinking about giving him another shot, but there are still reasons for optimism. His batted ball data has been pretty consistent his whole career, according to Statcast, posting ground ball rates of 54%, 61.7%, and 56.7% in 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively.
His average exit velocities of 88.6 and 87.8 MPH in his first two seasons were solid, as well as his 2.3 and 5.2 Barrel%. What killed him last season was the 26.8% HR/FB, the worst mark of any pitcher with at least 50 innings.
Some of that was bad luck, but a lot of it stems from the 10.2 Barrel% he allowed, placing him in the 13th percentile. Also, his 91.7 MPH average exit velocity was disastrous, and after posting hard-hit rates under 43% in 2019 and 2020, it rose to a grotesque 55.6%.
Despite the hard contact, his stuff looks similar. Dobnak’s arsenal consists of mainly three pitches (sinker, slider, changeup), that all had comparable vertical and horizontal movement to years prior. His slider was his worst pitch according to Statcast’s run value last season. However, it was his best pitch in 2020 and had the highest spin rate and velocity of his career in 2021.
The noticeable issue is his pitch location. When he was performing well, unsurprisingly, he was painting the corners. But, the heat maps from last year show many hanging sliders and a sinker left in the heart of the zone far too often.
The stats reflect this with a 6.9% meatball rate, the highest of his career. Not a good recipe for success, especially considering Dobnak’s absence of a power arm that can’t get away with missing spots.
He’s never going to strike out a bunch. But he should have better than an 11.8 K% next year. His slider’s 37.3 Whiff% was better than that of 2020, and his changeup remained relatively the same at 16%. The sinker’s whiff rate was about 3% worse, but better location of the pitch should naturally fix that.
Dobnak will almost certainly continue limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground. If he can find a way to keep his pitches from the heart of the zone again and lower his ugly 1.95 HR/9, it will be good news for the Minnesota Twins, and he would help out a rotation with a number of needs.
We don’t need him to be a Cy-Young caliber arm. If he can manage roughly a 4.00 ERA by season’s end, it would go a long way for a club that has no projected 2022 starter who posted an ERA below 4.05 a season ago. And if nothing else, if he can make 30 starts while pitching average ball, it will keep the Twins from having to rely on below-average or unproven starters in the club’s system.
Next season, if the calendar turns to June and Dobnak still finds himself getting crushed on a weekly basis, then maybe we can write him off. But it’s not time yet. I think there is still something left in the mustached right-hander.